Integrating the Geospatial Industry and the Need for Open Standards: the View from Autodesk

By Chris Bradshaw

We are at a watershed today in the geospatial industry. On the one hand we are faced with high demand for infrastructure projects, driven by the current state of U.S. infrastructure, which garnered a "D" grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2004, and by the rapid growth of emerging economies such as China and India. On the other hand we grapple daily with a scarcity of engineering and geospatial professionals, which will only become more pronounced as many baby boomers reach retirement age.

These conflicting forces, an abundance of work and scarcity of staff, are driving government institutions, engineering companies, utility companies and others to adopt creative strategies to address the gap between great demand and limited resources. Government institutions and engineering firms are adopting productivity tools. Government agencies with over-extended staffs are contracting with engineering firms, not just for the design and construction work, but the operations and management of entire infrastructure projects. Engineering and GIS firms are contracting to their counterparts globally, as well as buying smaller firms to access engineering talent. At the end of the day, as functions share, collaborate and cross-pollinate, the civil engineering and geospatial industries are rapidly converging.

At Autodesk we have seen customer after customer welcome, and even drive, this integration. From the U.S. Air Force to the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the City of Tacoma, we're seeing GIS specialists adopt a more sophisticated approach that draws from design information available through multiple CAD and GIS systems and uses a centralized spatial database from a traditional database vendor like Oracle. Unwilling to merely bolt these CAD and GIS systems together as they've done in the past or suffer poor data translation, they are demanding a seamless and symbiotic integration of technology. They still want the best tool for the job, but they expect that tool to work with other technologies.

The Need for Open Standards
The rapid integration and expansion occurring in the industry is creating havoc where disparate systems exist, and the market is noisily demanding interoperability. Three phenomenon are in play: (1) engineering firms are taking on many GIS functions on top of their CAD functions, (2) GIS specialists are collaborating more closely with engineers, and (3) as job functions merge to manage the entire infrastructure lifecycle the market is demanding a common language that works across disciplines. From interoperability guidelines for data exchange to spatial data infrastructures to a common infrastructure for decision support, the market is demanding open standards.

We have had a taste of what exposed interfaces can do for the industry. At the consumer application level, Google Earth has had an energizing effect – developers have "mashed up" applications with Google's APIs to develop innovative applications, and the experiment has been so successful that Microsoft and Yahoo! have followed suit, providing their mapping APIs to the community.

There are limitations, however, to developing only with published but proprietary interfaces as opposed to a full geospatial Web services platform based on open standards. The industry requires open standards. These standards should be developed in an open consensus process to allow developers to host and publish compelling commercial applications and to give users more control over their data.

To this end, Autodesk participates in the Open Geospatial Consortiums (OGC) standards process and implements OGC standards in our products. Seven products can be found here. MapGuide is one of Autodesk's products that include support for OpenGIS Web Map Server (WMS) and Web Feature Server (WFS) Implementation Specifications. Last year we contributed the source code for the extensive MapGuide mapping platform to the open source community via the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO). Since opening the code, we've seen interest from a range of organizations, including many local municipalities in the U.S., where open source developers are beginning to create innovative and powerful new applications with MapGuide Open Source and its open interfaces.

We believe leveraging open standards and open source are important prerequisites for the growth of the industry.

Mapping the Geospatial Industry's Future
As we map our future, we plan to continue to help develop open standards and to implement open standards in our technology. Just as urban planners approve standards for land use, roads and other infrastructure, setting the stage for our cities' healthy growth, we need to work with others to develop open standards to support future growth in the use of geospatial technology.

The opportunities seem limitless, with approximately 80 percent of business and government information having some reference to location, and we are on the verge of explosive growth. However we must first clear the path with open standards that enable users to freely exchange and apply geospatial information, applications and services across networks, platforms and products. Sure, there will be many challenges along the road as we determine the best ways to go about this, but we are confident that the industry-wide effort facilitated by OGC will provide us with what we need to best serve our constituents, our clients and our communities.

Published Thursday, June 15th, 2006

Written by Chris Bradshaw

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